The Magic of Processing

I started dabbling in Photoshop for fun in 1997. I was just a kid. Later, in college, I got my first job at the University library. One of my job duties was working in Photoshop to restore damaged historic photos from the library’s collection. At that time, I built the real foundation of the processing skill I bring today. I didn’t get much instruction, but I learned how to layer, how to blend well, and how to fool the eye.

Fast foward a couple decades or so. When I began to sincerely invest in my education as a portrait photographer, with that new formal knowledge based on the foundation of all those years of experience… suddenly, I could see the Matrix. Does that reference date me?! hahaha

But really… Images: they are all. just. pixels. A photo is a painting made out of pixels. Photoshop makes an image into modeling clay in technicolor. You can do anything you want with it. It is such an amazing, sophisticated tool.

I know I talk a lot about processing on my blog, and my experience in that realm is definitely on my A list of skills. But I don’t use processing to make boring images interesting. My goal is to use processing to make amazing images spectacular.

Processing and retouching conversations usually center around “perfecting” a client’s appearance. I do correct the posture and retouch impermanent blemishes, as a mundane matter of course. But to me, the real gold of processing is not about making people thinner or fixing skin. It’s about creating magic.

Straight out of camera.

What if her hair flew up just a little higher and spread out just a little more? What if she had pointed her foot more gracefully when she kicked it up? What if the sunset that night had been more colorful? What if the sun set right behind them instead of off to the right somewhere?

Magic. That’s what.

With magic.

Look for this image at the Amador County fair next week!


Dream Big Dreams

See that it’s possible.

I feel pretty lucky that I was born to live in this time. The age of global information brings a lot of new complications to our lives, but it also allows light to fall on a lot of things that used to stay in shadow.

When I was in college, I was the first woman to arrange music for our University’s marching band. A friend was the first female drum major. When we were kids, the band didn’t allow female members at all.

We blazed through these firsts without giving them much thought, and that is amazing. We didn’t feel like pioneers, it just felt normal. Thank goodness for change! It has become much more widely accepted for all of us to follow our hearts, even if we don’t fit the traditional mold.

My little daughter is in love with airplanes. When she goes out wearing her tiny bomber jacket, people call her a cute little fella. Female pilots are still considered somewhat remarkable–women aerobats actually compete separately from men even now.

So, we watch a lot of documentaries about women pilots and we go to air shows whenever we can. I want her to know that people like her can do that–that it’s not reserved for someone else. Maybe as she grows older, her interests will change. But we’ll always be there to support her vision and help her find ways to follow her ambitions, even if there’s no example before her to follow.

Times keep steadily changing, and by the minute, it becomes less and less remarkable for anyone to do just about anything they want to do. It’s pretty exciting. And knowing where we came from, I’m so happy when I can lend a little boost to help her envision herself following her dreams.

“She believed she could, so she did…”

Giving The Gift of Legacy Photography to your Parents and Children

a large family portrait session in amador county, California by Relish Photography
A recent Relish family legacy session

Day to day we all go along, busy, immersed, often overtaxed. We take a lot of snapshots. We give lots of hugs. Maybe not as many as we’d like. If we’re lucky, a lot of people lean on us for what they need to get through life, and if we’re REALLY lucky, they’re there for us to fall on when we need it, too.

Family, right? We love them and they drive us crazy. But they’re always there.

A selfie of me and my husband on our first anniversary. This is a beautiful memory, but I wish we had some nice portraits from this year!

Stuck in our regular routine, it’s can be easy to put our folks on the back burner. We all have obligations and there’s a limit to the energy we can spend in a day. But as life has unfolded, I’ve realized how important it is to make time for family.

In the past I’ve always found ways to make our own family portraits here and there, usually by handing off the camera to a bystander for a snapshot. We all have bills to pay, and a portrait session doesn’t immediately rank as necessary. But this year, I made it a priority to invest in a portrait session for my family.

It felt right to honor my mom with a quality portrait of our three generations of women together, and I wanted my daughter to have a beautiful visual legacy to hold onto throughout her life. A professional portrait gives a level of honor to the family that the dearest snapshots can’t match; and there’s a transformative quality to seeing your family through the eyes of an outsider.

Two sisters throw dry leaves in the air while mom and dad steal a kiss in the background.
A Relish family session. This is more than just a pretty Christmas card. What a gift this image will be to these sweet girls as they grow older!

I’m so fortunate that I can give other families the opportunity to create family legacy portraits. These images are are so beautiful to create, and fill my heart with love and reverence. If you haven’t had a family portrait made lately, it’s time! Get everyone together, get dressed up, and celebrate your family’s legacy. Do it for your kids, do it for your parents, and do it for yourself.

How I wish we’d done this with my dad, too. I have mostly snapshots of my dad. He left us before I became a serious portrait photographer myself, and we never really knew the value of professional family portraits until the opportunity was gone. I can’t go back and recreate those legacy images for my dad. But going forward, I can honor my family with professional portraits regularly. And, as a photographer, I can give others the same opportunity to create a lasting, visual legacy for their families with every family session I schedule.

Me and mom. ZAMS Photography by Zita Makkos

Why I Don’t Use Presets

One of my images with a popular preset applied. The white patch on the right is burning my eyes! that highlight was not blown out in the original image.

My feed’s always flooded with ads for photography presets, also known in the social media world as filters. These pre-made sets of editing actions can be mass-applied to a whole photoshoot at once. Some photographers use presets as a tool to save time and give all their work a consistent look.

When a stylized preset is applied, the image can become more about the preset than the actual image itself. For this reason, presets can help increase the impact of images that are lacking in interest or quality. But they fall far short of hand editing when they meet with great image quality and attention to detail.

Clients and colleagues have complimented my processing and asked if presets are a part of my workflow. So, I wanted to take a few minutes to write about my approach to processing, and explain why I don’t use presets.

If you’ve ever followed a photography feed or even talked about photography near your phone, you’ve probably seen preset ads. Brixton film, Jake Olson, who else sells presets? There are so many out there. The example photos look dreamy–bright, rich, deep and intense, or soft, muted, and tranquil. Surreal in a really good way. It’s easy to think that mood was created by the preset alone.

But, no. A professional photographer shot those images, and although the preset was applied, many other actions were also taken to create that final product. When presets are simply applied wholesale, one-and-done style, the effect is not always so dreamy.

Left: My hand edit; Right: a popular preset with no other edits

When I began studying as a photographer, I was incredibly fortunate to have a very patient and technically-minded mentor who taught me in depth how to shoot and edit for the best possible image quality. It was a major milestone for me in my path to begin shooting professionally when I was accepted as a contributor for Adobe Stock and Getty Images–two separate commercial image sources, each with a strict insistence on impeccable image quality. My artistic editing springs from that foundation of technical excellence. I start with a clean image, and branch out to create a little fantasy in my editing without losing that integrity.

Consider the images above. On the left, in my hand edit, I kept the blacks dark and the whites bright, making space for the midtones. I clipped the blacks gently to give a soft matte look. I softened the green but left it a natural hue. I augmented the direction of the light. I removed some distractions from the background and minimized the prominence of the textures in the road and grass. I pumped up her hair and subtly straightened her posture, and I processed her skin first by hand and then by applying my custom look with a sophisticated skin texture algorithm.

Left: My hand edit; Right: the same popular preset as above.

In this detail crop of the same image, you can really see the difference in the level of detail between the hand edit and the image with the preset applied. The preset made her white shirt look blue and her face look orange. Her hair is not flattered, and her eyes are darkened so much that the light in them is almost totally lost. The preset brought out unwanted detail in the background and flattened her face, making it appear more broad. The same broadening and flattening effect can be seen in the preset-applied image below right. The skin tone is unnatural, and popped details in the gate steal attention from her face.

Left: My hand edit; Right: another popular preset–her face is flattened and broadened by detail loss.

I love an artistic, stylized edit, but presets don’t give me that. For my workflow, they remove detail and rob the processing experience of its intention and artistry. There’s nothing a preset can do that I can’t create by hand, which gives me so much more freedom to create.

Left: My hand edit; Right: original image straight out of camera with no edits

Presets do serve as a great reflection of popular culture. In 10 years, we may look back on them with nostalgia the same way we look back now on Glamor Shots, In Living Color, and JNCO pants. SO cool at the time, right? So NOW. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the love may not last.

As much as I enjoy being gently swayed by the changing tides of style, it’s important to me that I stay rooted in classic beauty. I want to make sure the work I’m creating will still be relevant and just as enjoyable in 10, 20, or 50 years. And, above all else, I want my portraits to be about the person, not the processing.